The little blond boy looked out the window of the United Airlines jet as it left Denver. Raoul Wuthrich had just turned eleven in the Jefferson County juvenile detention center, where he'd been placed for sexually assaulting his five-year-old sister, but now he was free to go.
"Bye-bye Denver, I never want to see you again," he said as a reporter for the daily Swiss newspaper Blick sat next to him taking notes. "Finally, I feel good. I won't be in court anymore where there are many evil people."
Soon he would see his mommy and daddy, who had left him behind after he'd been arrested in August, and his sisters -- including the one who had told on him. But he wouldn't have to see the "evil people" again. Like the lady next door who used to let him play with her dogs, but then said she saw him in his backyard kissing his sister's "privates." Like the deputy who took him from his bed in the middle of the night. Like the people who said he was cruel to animals. Or the man who asked him about the fires.
It was goodbye and good riddance. He was going home to Switzerland. To mommy and daddy...and his little sisters.
Laura Mehmert was disappointed with Judge James Zimmerman's decision to let Raoul go. She worries about what will happen to his little sister. But her life has been hell since she went to the authorities with what she saw on May 25, 1999, and if the Swiss want Raoul, they're welcome to him.
The Wuthrich family had moved to Evergreen and into the house behind Mehmert's in May 1998. The very first day, Mehmert, whose two sons were in their twenties and out of the house, knew the kid was going to be a handful. That evening, deputies came over to the chain-link fence that separated her yard from the Wuthriches', asking if she had seen a little blond-haired, blue-eyed boy. He'd wandered off sometime that morning, but the boy's mother hadn't worried and called the deputies until dark.
They found the boy playing in a house that was under construction. The incident didn't stop the children -- an eleven-year-old girl and nine-year-old Raoul from Beverly Wuthrich's first marriage and a four-year-old girl and a two-year-old girl from her current marriage to Andreas Wuthrich -- from freely wandering around the neighborhood. They often ended up over at Mehmert's house, which caused the Wuthriches' first run-in with the law regarding their kids.
Exactly one year before Mehmert saw Raoul pull down his sister's pants, Beverly Wuthrich was reported to Jefferson County authorities by the Mehmerts' dogsitter. The Mehmerts were on vacation when the young woman arrived at their house to find the two-year-old Wuthrich child climbing on the Mehmerts' front-porch railing, eight feet above the ground, while the four-year-old pushed on the front door. Inside was the Mehmerts' rottweiler mix -- a dog that was fine with children as long as they were with an adult who invited them in, but that would have enjoyed a child snack if the girl had managed to open the unlocked door. The dogsitter took the children home and called the police. Beverly was charged with misdemeanor child neglect for placing her daughters in a "situation which posed a threat of injury." She pleaded guilty and was fined $78 and ordered to attend parenting classes; if there were no other problems, the incident wouldn't go on her record.
Mehmert noticed plenty of odd behavior at the Wuthriches'. She went over to visit a few times and noticed that the family seemed to be living out of boxes. There was no art on the walls, and from what Mehmert could tell, their furniture consisted of a couch in the living room, a built-in dining-room table with chairs, and beds in the bedrooms. But it wasn't the lack of decor that bothered Mehmert, she says. It was the kids.
Raoul was a regular Dennis the Menace. Once Mehmert caught him hitting golf balls dangerously close to her windows. When Mehmert talked to his mother about Raoul's hijinks, Beverly Wuthrich blamed it on attention deficit disorder.
In July of that first summer, Raoul was in Mehmert's yard playing with her dogs when, Mehmert says, she noticed a large burn on his upper thigh. The angry-looking wound was four inches square. When she asked what had happened, Raoul mumbled something but didn't seem to want to talk about it. Mehmert says she went into the house and brought back lotion to take the sting out of the burn.
She took some Popsicles next door for the children, hoping to talk to Beverly about the burn. "She said he backed into an iron," says Mehmert. "I said, 'Oh, really?' But I thought that was an odd place on his body to have 'backed into an iron.'"
Several weeks later, Raoul was back playing with the dogs when he asked Mehmert if she had more of that lotion. He had a new burn, the same four-inch square shape, she says, only this time it covered the entire back of his knee. "I asked, 'How'd you do that?'" Raoul said he'd backed into a motorcycle when they had been away on a trip the week before. "I said, 'That seems awful high on your leg for backing into a motorcycle,' but he wouldn't look at me."
Later, she says she noticed another burn, a long, thin mark on the four-year-old daughter's leg. When she asked about it, Mehmert says, the eleven-year-old sister quickly interjected that the little girl had burned herself with a curling iron. However, the older girl then held up her little sister's shirt to expose another long, thin burn across her sister's stomach. "So she burned herself twice with a curling iron?" Mehmert recalls asking. "She said yes, that's what happened. Then their mother came out and told them to all go in the house."
Mehmert says she was concerned about the children, but she didn't feel it was her place to say anything. That changed in mid-August. Raoul and his older sister were over visiting when, out of the blue, the boy said his mother and father had "grounded" him because his four-year-old sister had lied about him. "He said that she told his parents that he was kissing her on her 'privates.'"
Mehmert says she was stunned. "I was saying to myself, 'What am I hearing here?' So I asked him, 'Are you doing that?' He said no, but he wouldn't look at me.
"I said, 'Well, you know, Raoul, children her age are too young to know how to lie about those things.' But then his sister, the older one, said, 'Let's talk about something else now.' And that was the end of the conversation."
Unsure of what to do, Mehmert called a child psychologist in Evergreen and told her what the boy had said. The woman told her that as a psychologist, she was legally obligated to report the allegation of sexual abuse of a child to the Jefferson County Department of Human Services, which includes child protection services. The psychologist reported Mehmert's accusations on August 21, 1998. But Mehmert never heard from social services and figured it must not have been a big deal to the authorities.
In the meantime, she kept an eye out for Raoul, who always seemed to be getting into something he shouldn't. One day that fall, she saw him trying to enter his next-door neighbor's house through a window. He'd had to jump up to reach the sill and was lowering himself inside rear-end first when she called out, asking him what he was doing.
The telephone was ringing, he explained. He was going to answer it.
"I told him, 'It's not your house and not your telephone,'" Mehmert says. "'And what you're doing is against the law.' He just kind of looked at me like he didn't understand what he'd done wrong."
When Mehmert took the boy home, she says, his mother told her, "I can't do anything with him. Sometimes I just have to lock him in a closet."
"You lock him in a closet?" Mehmert asked.
Beverly explained to Mehmert that it wasn't as bad as it sounded. "After all, she told me, there was a window in the closet and a computer for him to play with." Beverly also told Mehmert that she'd tried sending Raoul to counselors, but that hadn't worked; she'd also sent him to stay with his biological father, but he couldn't handle the boy, either.
Mehmert grew increasingly concerned about Raoul. For Easter, the Wuthriches got their children a large bunny they named Peter Rabbit. This time it was the neighbor whose telephone Raoul wanted to answer who complained to Mehmert about the boy. The woman, Shirley, says she was in her backyard playing with her grandchildren when to her surprise, a bunny came flying over the Wuthriches' eight-foot-tall wood fence into the empty lot next door. Then Raoul scrambled over the fence, where he captured and played with the bunny before picking it up and tossing it back over the fence again. This happened a couple of times before Raoul apparently tired of the game.
Later, when Mehmert asked the children about Peter Rabbit, they told her he had "gone to heaven" -- but that was okay, because they had a new bunny. They showed her this bunny, which had a lump the size of a fist on its back and seemed to be injured. She asked about the lump, and the oldest girl told her they weren't sure but they thought that perhaps a fox had bitten the bunny. The next time Mehmert asked about the bunny, she learned that it, too, "had gone to heaven."
In April 1999, with something akin to horror, Mehmert learned that Beverly Wuthrich had opened her home to provide daycare for young children -- less than a year after she had been charged with child neglect and ordered to attend parenting classes. Mehmert says she wondered whatever had possessed the woman to do such a thing. "She didn't know where her own children were most of the time. But Beverly said that Andreas had lost his job -- he was an electrical engineer, or something like that -- and she needed to make money."
It seemed that every time she turned around, Mehmert was hearing something troublesome involving the Wuthrich children. A friend of Mehmert's told her that she'd been driving down busy Highway 74, which leads from Interstate 70 to Evergreen, when she'd spotted two little girls with backpacks trudging along the side of the road. With cars and trucks whizzing past within a few feet of the girls, she decided she'd better stop and pick them up. They turned out to be the now five- and three-year-old Wuthrich sisters. Their mother had called them at the house and told them to meet her at Taco Bell. Mehmert was aghast. It was more than two and a half miles from the neighborhood to the restaurant, much of it along busy roadways with little shoulder to walk on. At one point, they'd had to cross the highway.
Then, on May 25, Mehmert says, she was sitting in a room at the back of her house around 4 p.m. when she happened to look out the large picture window that faced the Wuthrich property. She saw Raoul and his five-year-old sister come around to the side yard. Facing the little girl on his knees, Raoul pulled her pants down to her ankles. Mehmert says her first thought was that maybe he was helping her "go potty." But then he pressed his face into her crotch "so far you couldn't have slipped a piece of paper between the two of them."
Raoul next stood up and walked around behind the little girl, who was bent over with her hands touching the ground, Mehmert says. He placed one hand on his sister's hip as he pressed his crotch against her buttocks. His other hand was hidden from Mehmert's view -- but Mehmert had seen enough. She ran out the back door, yelling, "What on earth are you doing?"
Raoul looked surprised, Mehmert says, as he turned toward her with his pants unzipped. "He said he was helping her get some rocks out of her underwear."
"I did not," the little girl told Mehmert, who noticed that she then pulled up her own pants (obviously, she'd been capable of pulling them down herself). "Did you have to go to the bathroom?" she asked the girl.
Mehmert says she ordered the boy to zip his pants. "I told him, 'This is way out of line, Raoul. You've got to know that this was wrong.'"
She says he just nodded without saying anything.
Mehmert didn't know what to do. It had been nearly a year since Raoul had told her about being grounded for kissing his sister's privates. "The little girl acted like this was just something she had to put up with. She wasn't crying, but she'd certainly seemed relieved when I showed up."
The children walked away as Mehmert turned and went back into her house to call Beverly Wuthrich. She told her what she'd witnessed, but Mehmert says Beverly simply said, "'Are you sure that's what you saw?' That was it, that was the whole response."
Mehmert thought the other woman would have been shocked. Instead, she just seemed concerned that someone had seen what happened.
Mehmert agonized for a week. She didn't want to call the police. These were her neighbors, and, she says, "I knew there would be waves." But she couldn't get past the fact that there were other children besides the two younger sisters in the house. "Raoul needed help. So did the little girl," she says, "and the mother seemed oblivious."
Finally, she called the Department of Human Services and told the screening caseworker what she'd seen. Later, however, the investigation would reveal that all the caseworker wrote down on her report was that the "reporting person" had seen the boy pull his sister's pants down and felt his actions were "predatory." She wrote nothing in the report about the boy pressing his face or his crotch into the girl's genital area.
About two weeks passed. Then Beverly Wuthrich came over, Mehmert says. "She left her children in the car and asked if she could come in and talk about Raoul. She asked me, 'What exactly did you see?' So I told her the whole story again. She said it was exactly what her daughter had told her. She had thought that maybe her daughter was just angry at her brother and trying to get him in trouble."
Mehmert says she urged her neighbor to get help for her children -- if not for Raoul's sake, then for the little girl's. "I told her that being molested was something that could haunt her daughter for the rest of her life. And that's when she told me she'd been molested by her stepbrother for five years when she was a girl. She said, 'And I turned out okay.'
"I couldn't believe it," Mehmert continues. "I asked, 'So this behavior is all right with you?' She said it wasn't all right. But then she stood up and said, 'Gotta go, the kids are in the car.' And she was gone."
Soon afterward, Mehmert got a call from social services field investigator Rhonda Miklic, who wanted to know if she would mind speaking to a sheriff's office investigator. Jeffco investigator Tom Acierno called the next day, and Mehmert told her story again.
Then it all seemed to go away, and everything went back to "normal" -- though that's not how Mehmert would describe it. All night, almost every night, the Wuthriches left on what appeared to be every light in the house, Mehmert says.
In August, she saw smoke coming from their yard. She knew daycare children were over there and decided to call Beverly, who hadn't spoken to her since the day she had come by to ask Mehmert what she had seen. Mehmert got the answering machine but says Beverly "called back twenty minutes later and said her oldest daughter had learned how to build fires at Girl Scout camp and had been instructing the other children."
Mehmert says she didn't bother calling the next day when she saw smoke again, or when she saw one of the daycare kids standing on the back deck lighting matches and tossing them to the ground. She figured no one else seemed to care what was going on over there, so why should she?
Mehmert says she didn't know about Raoul's August 30 arrest until she returned from a trip out of town on September 12 and found a subpoena in the mail. But by then, the rest of the Wuthrich family had gone to Switzerland, leaving their ten-year-old son behind in the Mount View Juvenile Detention Facility. And of all the odd behavior she'd seen since they'd moved in, that seemed to her the oddest.
Normally, when someone makes an allegation of child sexual abuse, the police begin their investigation by interviewing the victim, the victim's parents and the witnesses, trying to gather as much information as possible regarding the allegations before confronting the accused. Investigators also pull up any reports of prior contact by police or the Colorado Department of Human Services. Then they put all of the information into a "filing packet" and take it to the district attorney, who decides whether to file charges.
In some jurisdictions, such as Jefferson County (in which Evergreen is located), child advocacy centers conduct "forensic interviews" as part of such investigations. These are similar to other interviews of crime witnesses, except that they are geared to be "child-friendly," done by social workers specially trained in interviewing children. The workers avoid badgering or asking the same question repetitively -- which might be seen as leading the victim -- but they will ask the question in different ways to check a child's story for consistency. They also listen to see if a child tells the story as though it happened to him, using "child-appropriate" language, instead of sounding as if he's merely repeating something he's been told by an adult. All of the interviews are videotaped.
Investigating child sexual abuse becomes more complicated when the victim and suspect are in the same family. Then the department of social services joins in the interviews with the police or the advocacy centers, so they don't have to ask juveniles for the same information twice. And if the social workers feel it's warranted, the department initiates a "dependency and neglect" proceeding against the parents, sometimes weeks or even months before they ever take the filing packet to the district attorney's office. At the start of a D&N, the child is removed from the home and usually placed in a temporary foster home; within 48 hours, a magistrate reviews the case to determine what should happen next. The magistrate may allow the child to go back home (with or without certain conditions, such as drug and alcohol treatment or locks on the victim's doors to prevent further abuse) or order that the child be kept in protective custody out of the home.
If the judge or social workers want more information before they make a decision, they can ask for a "placement evaluation" by private therapists, who have contracts with the department of human services but are not part of the agency. Sometimes those therapists recommend that the child be placed with a family friend, relative or church member who doesn't have at-risk children.
But the social services actions are independent from the police or DA investigations. Large counties often have special crimes-against-children units staffed by prosecutors who specialize in child-protection laws, and they may decide to file charges, decline the case, or send it back for more investigation. Often, when prosecutors decide to press charges, they ask the court to issue a summons ordering the parents to show up in court with the suspect child rather than going out and arresting the child. That's how the system is designed to work.
The Wuthrich investigation was convoluted from the beginning. Instead of talking to as many of the people involved as possible, Miklic and a Jeffco patrol officer talked to Beverly Wuthrich on June 3. Wuthrich asked if the accusation had come from Mehmert, who she complained was being unreasonable and interfering in family matters, according to an affidavit for Raoul's later arrest. She said she was concerned about what Mehmert had reported to her but that both of her children told her that Raoul was simply assisting his sister by unbuttoning her pants and holding her legs so that she could urinate. She said she took "corrective action" and considered the incident resolved.
Miklic and the deputy did not speak to Raoul, his sister or Mehmert. The Jeffco sheriff's office left it to social services to follow up on the case. It wasn't until two weeks later that Dan Jarboe, the director of investigations for the Jefferson County Children's Advocacy Center, and Miklic interviewed the five-year-old Wuthrich girl. According to Jarboe's report, the girl told them that Raoul had pulled down her pants and underwear, kissed her vagina and fondled the exterior of her vagina with his fingers; she said she was "going potty" when this occurred but that Raoul was not assisting her. She also said that her half-brother forced her to submit to this touching and warned her not to tell their mother and that she and Raoul were observed by their neighbor, who spoke to them. She added that Raoul "always touches my body."
Five days later, Jeffco sheriff's investigator Acierno finally talked to Raoul after the boy and his father waived Raoul's Miranda rights. During the interview, Raoul claimed that he was only helping his sister urinate by pulling her pants down and holding her legs. He admitted that he told Mehmert he was helping his sister remove rocks from her underpants, but only because he was afraid that she would report his actions and he'd get in trouble. He denied touching his sister in a sexual manner and accused her of lying because "she likes to get me in trouble." It was eleven days later that Acierno talked to Mehmert.
Despite the evidence of possible sexual abuse determined by the interviews, over the summer the Jefferson County Department of Social Services made no move to initiate a D&N proceeding to remove Raoul or his sister from the home.
But the department requested a placement evaluation based on the therapist's concerns about other inappropriate "sexual contact" within the family, allegations of animal cruelty and the fact that Raoul had admitted to setting six fires, four in August alone.
Concerned about how well the Wuthriches would monitor inappropriate sexual contact between their children if they couldn't stop Raoul from setting fires, the evaluator recommended that Raoul be placed out of the home.
The Jefferson County Crimes Against Children Unit didn't receive Raoul's placement evaluation until August; prosecutors then decided to charge the boy with aggravated incest. Alarmed that no one had initiated a D&N proceeding -- and therefore no court order had been issued to protect the little girl -- they asked the sheriff's office to issue a "warrantless arrest." Unlike a search warrant, which must first be approved by a judge, a warrantless arrest is merely for the apprehension of an individual; it does not allow law enforcement to enter a building without consent to search for a suspect.
The warrant was issued for 3:30 p.m. on August 30. The idea was to find the boy after he got off the bus from school; however, Beverly Wuthrich picked up her son at school that day. A deputy called the home trying to make arrangements to pick up the boy later that afternoon but couldn't reach the Wuthriches. The deputy then went to the house at 10:30 p.m. and was allowed inside. He then found Raoul in bed, where he arrested him, handcuffed him and hauled him off to Mount View Juvenile Detention Facility.
The image of the cute little blond-haired, blue-eyed ten-year-old, his wrists bound by steel bracelets as he was marched away by a pistol-packing deputy, touched off a firestorm that would obscure what this case was really about: the alleged sexual molestation of a five-year-old girl by her ten-year-old half-brother.
Seven days after the arrest of their son, the Wuthriches fled the country for Switzerland. Andreas and Beverly went to the press to drum up international support for their son, explaining that they had left because they feared arrest and feared that their other children might be taken from them. The Jeffco DAs protested that there were no such intentions, but the media conflagration had already begun.
Soon the story of little Raoul was front-page news in Swiss and German newspapers, especially the tabloid Blick, which would collect 30,000 signatures in Switzerland (where children under the age of fourteen cannot be arrested), urging the boy's release. The paper even started a "Free Raoul" legal defense fund.
Taking their cue from Raoul's attorney, Arnold Wegher, and the parents' attorney, Vincent Todd, the European media presented the story that Raoul had only been trying to help his little sister go potty in the backyard when a busybody neighbor reported him; at worst, the boy's actions with his sister were nothing more than a little boy "playing doctor."
"The most disturbing [thing] in the Raoul Wuthrich case is the fact that Americans are surprised about the commotion the case caused in Europe," wrote Martin Killias, a professor of law and criminology at the University of Lausanne, in an editorial for one Swiss newspaper. "This shows how madness has become normal in the U.S....All suspects are treated equally, regardless whether they are dangerous or not. The fact that children are locked up in jails, and sometimes executed, is normal. A fair trial is important, but whether guilty or not is not important.
"The accused person must be able to prove whether another person could be the perpetrator because it is not up to the police to follow exonerating traces," he continued. "The practice of blackmailing accused people with the threat of extremely high sentences to force them to admit never-committed crimes to get lower sentences is also everyday life. This will happen in Raoul's case. The child and the family are destroyed because of a petty little matter."
The U.S. media wasn't far behind, with the Wuthriches appearing on Today and Geraldo and in newspapers from California to New York, tearfully proclaiming their son's innocence and damning the Jefferson County district attorney's and sheriff's offices. They said they had questioned their daughter "repeatedly" and that her story was consistent with Raoul's claim that he was only helping her go to the bathroom. (The Colorado media was more restrained. Reporters here had seen the arrest affidavit and other court documents and knew that there was more to this than a little boy helping his sister urinate or playing doctor -- unless he was specializing in gynecology.)
The response by the public, particularly the European public, took the Jeffco District Attorney's Office by surprise. By coincidence, Pam Russell, the DA's press information officer, had just returned from a vacation in Switzerland, where she'd marveled over the closeness of Swiss families. She was a little shocked when a Swiss friend's teenage daughter showed her a teen magazine that featured full-frontal nudity. And though she personally was not comfortable with the way they'd publicly drop their clothes to change into bathing suits before going for a dip in an Alpine lake, she thought it refreshing.
When Russell returned from her trip in early October, she heard that there was an incest case involving a juvenile who had dual citizenship and that his parents had left the country. But that was all she heard. She turned her attention to higher-profile cases.
On October 12, however, all hell broke loose. For the next three weeks, Russell received more than a hundred telephone calls a day to her office or pager -- most of them from the outraged European media, but some from private citizens here and abroad. There were a few expressions of support, particularly from victims of sexual abuse. However, a more typical call was like the one from the man in Germany who said this was the worst abuse of a human being he'd seen since the Nazis were in power. There were dozens of similar letters, even pretty postcards from the Alps condemning the Jeffco authorities.
In the worst of the media onslaught, there were "conversations" with U.S. Department of State officials who warned that the uproar went deeper than Raoul Wuthrich -- that it was a carryover of Swiss resentment over the fact that the U.S. had been pressuring Switzerland to return gold the Nazis had stolen from Jews and placed in the tiny neutral country's famous banks.
The case of The People of Colorado vs. Raoul Wuthrich quickly became a high-level international incident. The Swiss ambassador to the United States expressed his concern to President Clinton, who sent a representative to Colorado to keep track of the case and monitor the boy's incarceration. In Switzerland, the Bern City Council presented a petition signed by 62 of its 80 councilmembers to the U.S. embassy, "demanding the liberation of Raoul Wuthrich." Several members of the German Parliament said they intended to intervene somehow, calling the way in which Raoul had been treated "barbaric." Amnesty International, which rarely gets involved in U.S. cases (other than those involving the death penalty), weighed in against the manner of Raoul's arrest and incarceration.
The main target for vilification by the European press was Jeffco Deputy District Attorney Nancy Hooper. A prosecutor for fourteen years, with the crimes-against-children unit for more than six of them, she had dedicated her professional career to helping protect children from physical and sexual abuse. Yet, having taken over the case when the first prosecutor had to leave on a family emergency, she became the personification of the "barbaric" American juvenile justice system. Her photograph was plastered all over the Swiss and German newspapers, which labeled her "a beast."
"It was disturbing," Hooper recalls. "And frustrating. We couldn't say anything because the case was ongoing. But the worst thing for me was that this little girl was forgotten in all of this. It was as if she didn't exist, or that no one believed her."
The girl wasn't lying about what happened to her, Hooper insists. While any child's mind will wander, it's clear from her interview with the Jeffco Children's Advocacy Center's Dan Jarboe -- all of it on videotape -- that she understood the questions and was talking about what had actually happened to her. "And for me, Raoul's changing stories showed that he knew what he'd done was wrong," Hooper says.
Much of the vitriol aimed at Hooper and other members of the DA's office had been generated by Raoul's arrest and incarceration. The image of a little boy in handcuffs didn't do much for the public perception of the Jeffco sheriff's office, but what most people didn't know was that there was a reason for the sheriff's actions. In 1992, state trooper Lyle Wohlers had stopped a stolen car driven by a fifteen-year-old boy. Instead of handcuffing the suspect, searching him and placing him in the backseat as would have been standard with an adult suspect, Wohlers let the boy sit in the front seat next to him -- and the boy pulled a gun and shot Wohlers to death. Police agencies all over the state made it policy that any person apprehended, regardless of his age, must be handcuffed before being transported.
The district attorney's office and human services department maintain that Raoul's parents could have prevented the controversial scene if they had only cooperated. Before the Wuthriches fled the country, the Jeffco Department of Human Services had asked if there was someone -- a relative, a church member, a neighbor without young girls -- who could take Raoul while his case was resolved. If there had been, the district attorney's office contends it wouldn't have felt compelled to act so expediently just to get him away from his sister. But Beverly and Andreas said there was no one. Later, however, after Raoul's parents had left the country, his maternal grandmother showed up on the scene, asking that he be allowed to stay with her. But by that time, the DA's office was in no mood to allow Raoul to go to a family member.
Often, if parents seek appropriate counseling, such cases never even reach juvenile court. But the Wuthriches wouldn't sign paperwork so that Raoul could be taken to a therapist. Andreas explained that his son was not going to admit to having done anything wrong. "He's innocent," he told the press. From Switzerland, the Wuthriches refused to supply authorities with Raoul's birth certificate. (Prosecutors eventually added a charge of sexual assault against a child because they were unsure of Raoul's biological connection to the girl and didn't want to risk having the incest case thrown out on a technicality if defense attorneys proved the two children weren't related by blood.) And according to Pam Russell, at the same time as they were complaining that Raoul was being held in jail, the Wuthriches at first refused to hand over his immunization records, which were necessary to transfer him from Mount View to a foster home. Social services eventually got the records by another means, but then found it difficult to find a foster home that would take in a "fire-starter." After seven weeks at the detention center, Raoul was finally placed, but the foster parents soon requested that social services find him another home because he was abusive to the animals in their home.
The Wuthriches told the media that they had left the country because they feared their daughters would also be taken and that they might be arrested. The DA's office countered that it had no intention of arresting the Wuthriches or removing their girls once Raoul was out of the home. The authorities wondered what the Wuthriches were really afraid of. The investigators had been hearing allegations that the couple watched pornographic videos in the presence of their children; they had also come across a Web business the Wuthriches had named "Ultimate Fantasies" and registered with the Colorado Secretary of State's Office in July.
And as the European media swarmed into Colorado, there wasn't much Russell and Hooper could say to counter what they considered the press's one-sided job. Concerned about making any statements that might be cited as prejudicial and constrained by ethical rules against offering opinions and privacy laws regarding juvenile matters, the Jeffco DA's response was limited. An October 20 press release was a fairly generic explanation of the process, though it did contain jabs at the Wuthriches for those who knew to read between the lines. For example, the release noted that there are alternatives to the detention facility for juveniles accused of criminal behavior but that they "require the cooperation of the parents." And for those in the press passing off Raoul's actions as child's play, the DA's office noted that "normal childhood behavior is distinguishable from criminal sexual behavior requiring intervention."
But other than that, those in the district attorney's office could discuss only what came out in a series of courtroom hearings -- though some of that testimony was obviously intended for the press. In what sometimes seemed more of an effort to paint a fuller picture of the case for the public than to gain any headway in the courtroom, Deputy District Attorney Hal Sargent managed to slip in general comments about Raoul's fire-setting and animal abuse and about how there were witnesses who claimed the children had been exposed to pornography. The defense attorneys objected to Sargent's assertions and were often sustained, first by the magistrate and then by Judge Zimmerman -- but the information became part of the court record and reported by the press.
Laura Mehmert testified about what she had seen, saying that Raoul's actions were "sexual in nature." (She, too, had been hounded by the media, who camped out on her doorstep and trained their cameras on her windows day and night. She received dozens of letters accusing her of being a busybody, some from men and women who said children should be allowed to explore their sexuality with one another.)
Dan Jarboe testified that the girl said her half-brother had touched and kissed her inappropriately and that she "didn't like what he was doing." But defense attorney Wegher argued that the girl had been confused by the process and had also given answers that did not make any sense. He tried to have Jarboe's testimony stricken, saying his interview with the girl was a privileged conversation and couldn't be repeated without her permission. The judge overruled that objection and also denied the defense motion to have the case dismissed. In fact, Zimmerman said the prosecution had provided enough evidence to warrant the charges and a trial.
And the investigation continued to reveal more about the Wuthriches. The local press reported on Beverly's conviction for child neglect; her attorney, Vincent Todd, countered that she had agreed to plead guilty, pay the fine and attend parenting classes to avoid a "costly trial." The admission that Beverly and Andreas were first cousins didn't help their public-relations efforts, and the PR bandwagon really threw a wheel after the Denver Post reported that unnamed Jeffco authorities were calling "Ultimate Fantasies" an adult-video production company run out of the Wuthrich home.
Beverly appeared on NBC's Today program and denied having any involvement with adult-video production -- but a young woman in California saw the show and called the district attorney's office. For one thing, she contended, when she had met Beverly approximately seven years earlier, Beverly was working for an "escort service" in Denver.
"Cindy" says she just caught the end of Beverly and Andreas on the Today show. "They were lying through their teeth," she says. "She is not at all the person she was making herself out to be."
Cindy says she called the district attorney's investigator and told him that she had been "cocktailing" at the Diamond Cabaret strip club when she met Beverly. She says Beverly used to come into the club with one of her "escort service" clients, a man named Robert. "They would recruit girls to be with them -- a threesome," she says. "That's how we met -- they tried to recruit me. They mostly came in on Saturday nights, because that's when the best-looking girls are dancing, and sit next to the cage where girls dance."
A self-described "sort of straitlaced girl from Aurora," Cindy says she rejected their offers and didn't have much to do with them. When Beverly dumped Robert, however, she and Cindy became friends, "mostly because with Robert out of the picture, she seemed less of a threat, because I wasn't into what they were into."
Cindy says she learned quite a bit about Beverly's past. "She told me that she had been molested," Cindy says. Beverly also had two children -- a daughter of about five and Raoul, one year younger -- through her first husband, who lived in New Mexico.
Beverly had given Robert an ultimatum, Cindy says, and when he didn't marry her, she left. Beverly told Cindy that she had a cousin in Switzerland and was going to go meet him for the first time. She sent her kids to their father in New Mexico and "disappeared for a year."
While she was gone, Beverly and Cindy talked regularly on the telephone, Cindy says. "She met her cousin, who she said was gorgeous -- you know, girl talk." The whole time she was over there, Robert was sending her "hundreds of dollars, hoping to get back together with her," but she and her cousin, Andreas Wuthrich, were putting it aside to buy their own place.
When Beverly returned to Colorado, she was pregnant. "I went to her baby shower," Cindy says. "She was going back to Switzerland to marry Andreas. She said there was just one little technicality: He was her first cousin." Cindy says Beverly thought it would be illegal to marry her cousin in the United States but that it was allowed in Switzerland. "It was all too weird to me -- I mean, her uncle was also going to be her father-in-law." (First-cousin marriages are illegal in 27 states, but they're legal in Colorado and in Europe.)
In the meantime, Beverly's ex-husband in New Mexico sent Beverly's kids back to her. "Apparently, he couldn't control Raoul," Cindy says. "But Raoul didn't want to come live with his mother. She told me he had a little problem with starting fires to get attention."
After Beverly returned to Switzerland with her children, she continued to contact Cindy, who moved to Hawaii. By the time the Wuthriches moved back to Colorado, Cindy had married, divorced and moved to Phoenix, where Beverly came to visit with her new baby girl. She admits she was taken aback by the way Beverly would "whip it out" to breastfeed her child "anywhere, anytime" -- but then, Cindy figured maybe she was just being a prudish American and that Beverly had adopted a more relaxed, European attitude about exposing her breasts to the public.
Cindy then moved to Sacramento, where she met a man and got engaged. But she began having second thoughts about getting married so soon after her divorce and decided to get some space to think. She moved back to Colorado for a while and took Beverly up on an offer to move in with her family, who lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Aurora.
So began what Cindy calls "the most twisted six weeks of my life." When she arrived at the house, she learned that Raoul and his biological sister, now approximately seven and nine years old, shared the same bed; odder still was when the two children gave up their room for her and moved into the bedroom of their mother and stepfather, which the two adults already shared with their youngest daughter. Then there was Andreas's habit of walking around the apartment in the nude -- though he began putting on clothes when it became apparent that his behavior was embarrassing Cindy. But what bothered her most was that the adult Wuthriches didn't wait for their children to be out of the house -- or even asleep, Cindy says -- before engaging in boisterous sex. "They'd leave the door open," she says. "You couldn't miss it." She'd gone back to working as a cocktail waitress, this time at Hooter's, and would return home late at night to find the Wuthriches "going at it" in the living room. She says Beverly and Andreas frequently asked if she wanted to join in the fun.
Cindy says she told herself that she was bothered by the breastfeeding, the sleeping with their children, the nudity and the open sexuality because she didn't understand European culture. Still, she wondered if all Europeans sat around watching pornography with their children or allowed them to watch it when their parents weren't around. "Beverly would import these videos through Switzerland," Cindy recalls. "She'd take orders and sell them out of the home. But they had their own collection, too. They'd be right up there on the shelf along with -- and this would sound funny if it wasn't so twisted -- 'The Swiss Family Robinson.'" The pornography depicted wasn't violent in nature, "but it was major, hardcore sex. And the kids were allowed to pull it out, get their little bowl of popcorn and sit down like they were watching 'Barney.'"
Raoul and his older sister would take baths together, and again, Cindy decided it must be a European custom. However, she figured even Europeans might have questioned the appropriateness one day when she came home and found the kids, nude and fresh out of the bathtub, "running around playing 'choo-choo.' I'm sure you can imagine what his sister was pulling Raoul around by. I was like, 'What the fuck are you guys doing?' And they'd say, 'My mommy doesn't care.' I made them go get dressed, and they looked at me like I was the strange one."
Raoul, in particular, seemed sexually preoccupied. Once, the family was sitting around when he began trying to insert a finger into the vagina of the pet cat. "They thought that was cute," Cindy says. "It was, 'Oh, look, he's exploring.'"
Cindy's fiancé came for a visit only to have Raoul "go psychopath -- running his Hot Wheels cars through my fiancé's hair, saying things like 'I'm going to crash my cars in your hair.'" Normal little boy stuff, perhaps, but when taken with "Did you know I tried to burn our house down in Switzerland?" and "Wouldn't it be cool if I burned these apartments?" it was scary. The couple decided to stay in a motel.
When Cindy asked Beverly about whether Raoul had tried to burn down the house in Switzerland, she says Beverly admitted there had been such an incident. "Apparently, he was getting a lot of taunting at school because he was an American, spoke American -- really badgered and tormented by the other children," Cindy says. "So he acted out. He set the curtains on fire one night and burned three-quarters of the house down. Almost killed the family.
"The authorities in Switzerland weren't too thrilled about it," she adds. "Apparently, two other houses almost caught fire. That's when they moved back to the U.S."
Cindy concedes it's a bit strange that she stayed with the family as long as she did if she was so disturbed by what was going on. But, she says, she didn't have the money to move out on her own, and Beverly owed her $350. "The plan was always for them to move back to Switzerland," she says. "But where they wanted to move is apparently expensive, so Andreas, who worked for a computer company, kept real tight reins on their money. She was thinking about leaving him because she thought he was cheating on her, so she was stashing away money from selling the videos and borrowing from me."
Cindy decided marriage and a home in Sacramento looked pretty good by comparison. So she moved out and had nothing more to do with the Wuthrich family -- until she saw them on the Today show and called the Jeffco DA.
The district attorney's investigators had heard enough similar stories to take a hard look at what Cindy reported, including the allegation about Beverly working for an escort service. The DA won't comment on specifics of the investigation that didn't make it into the court record, but Hooper says that they heard from several other sources about the house fire in Switzerland. Their efforts to learn more about the alleged incident, she says, were hampered because Swiss authorities would not cooperate.
Sargent discussed Cindy's allegations about the escort service, the pornography, the open sexuality of the parents and the alleged fire in Switzerland at a hearing before Judge Zimmerman as reasons why the hearings on this case should be kept open to the public.
But Beverly Wuthrich managed to do further damage to her and her husband's image as parents when she confided to a Swiss TV channel that she had set up an online, fee-based "erotic site for women." The Swiss station reported that the site was linked to others where users could get access to hardcore pornographic pictures.
The Wuthriches and their attorney, Vincent Todd, spent the next couple of days backpedaling. Todd claimed that the couple had only considered setting up an adult video site featuring "sensual fantasies for women," but that the site never went online. Andreas Wuthrich admitted that he had "played" with a design but never got the site up and running, and that they had only considered it because they were having a difficult time making their mortgage payments. Both Wuthriches denied that adult videos were produced in their home or that they allowed their children to watch pornography. "There was never anything like that going on in our house," Andreas told the press. "Even the R-rated videos were locked up." Beverly went one step further, claiming, "I had restricted my children from watching R-rated movies and PG movies. I had locked them in the closet of my home because I didn't want my children to put on a movie that was not appropriate for them."
The district attorney's investigators were unable to locate an "Ultimate Fantasies" site that could be directly linked to the Wuthriches, but the damage was done. Blick, which had been collecting money for the family, said it would hold on to the funds until the matter was cleared up. Todd and Raoul's attorney, Wegher, whose fees might have been expected to come out of the legal defense fund set up by the newspaper, complained that the Web site brouhaha had been thrown out by the prosecutors as a distraction from the issue of Raoul's detention. Of course, they failed to note that their own railing about Raoul's treatment had overshadowed the accusations against their client: that he had molested a five-year-old girl.
In the meantime, the European press quietly dropped the "playing doctor" angle and focused on the ethics of arresting and incarcerating an (as of October) eleven-year-old boy.
The Wuthriches' attorney, Vincent Todd, concedes that Beverly frequented a topless bar, where "Cindy" worked as a dancer, before her marriage but says, "I don't believe Beverly ever worked for an escort service." And, he says, Cindy stayed with the Wuthriches for only three days and then left "after running up a thousand-dollar phone bill." Todd says he was given an investigative report from the District Attorney's office that included Cindy's allegations about the escort service, the pornography in front of the children, the sex in front of the children, the fire-setting and animal abuse. He points out that the Wuthriches' babysitter this past summer testified at a hearing that the children were not allowed to view pornography and that the parents seemed conscientious about what their children watched. He says that it is his "impression" that Cindy was trying to "work out a deal" with the DA's office for some legal trouble in California, which is why she might have made allegations against the Wuthriches. Those allegations were repeated in court by Hal Sargent, which Todd says was unethical. "He knows if he had made them outside the courtroom where what we say is protected, he would have been sued."
"Our effort was never about slandering or vilifying the family," Sargent counters. "It was to inform the court so that measures be taken to protect and treat the child." The parents' character is relevant, Sargent says, because "typically juvenile sex offenders are not charged criminally, and decisions to prosecute are usually only made when the parents are unable or unwilling to provide protection and treatment." In most juvenile sex-offender cases, the child is going to be sent home. Therefore, Sargent says, it is relevant to know what kind of environment the child will be returned to. Parents can either help with therapy or completely undermine the process. Sargent does admit the criminal system is "an imperfect fit for young sex offenders."
Todd says there is no real evidence that Raoul was doing anything sexually inappropriate. He says that Mehmert changed her story as time went on and that Raoul, who, when kneeling, comes up to his sister's chest, "would have had to have been a contortionist" to plant his lips on his sister's genitals. He notes that the August 1998 report by Mehmert, in which Raoul supposedly admitted that he was in trouble for kissing his sister's privates and that the children had burns on their bodies, was deemed "unfounded" by a social services investigator. "There was no scarring from any burns." And, Todd says, Raoul claimed he didn't know why his sister would keep making the allegations "if they weren't true."
The sheriff's office hadn't followed up on Mehmert's original report because there was no evidence of sexual contact, Todd says. The caseworker who talked to Mehmert noted only that she'd seen him pull down his sister's pants and thought it was predatory, and Beverly Wuthrich had told the deputy and Miklic that Raoul was "only helping his sister urinate." When the sheriff's office did get involved, Todd contends, officers "committed felonies that far outweigh anything Raoul was accused of doing." The first, he says, was perjury -- for falsifying the warrantless arrest affidavit. "It says the arrest occurred at 3:30, when everybody knew it didn't. The second was that it claimed there was sexual contact when that's not what the original report stated." (Mehmert says she told her full story when she first called social services on May 25 and when she talked to the deputy on June 30.)
When he took Raoul from his bedroom, the deputy committed felony second-degree kidnapping, Todd adds. "He had consent to come into the living room. The mom even asked if this couldn't wait until the morning, but he said, 'No, he's coming with me now.'" The deputy was "armed with a deadly weapon" and had no right to go to the boy's bedroom. District Attorney Dave Thomas "pretends that this is a small detail, when it's a felony under both federal and state law," Todd says.
The Department of Human Services didn't initiate a D&N procedure, according to Todd, until after the parents fled the country "because they saw no need." In fact, he contends, the parents were cooperating with the agency until Raoul's arrest. The Wuthriches felt "betrayed by the system" and saw Raoul's arrest as "bizarre." They sent the girls to Switzerland with their paternal grandmother before going overseas themselves. They believed, Todd says, that if Raoul did have a problem, he could receive "more appropriate" treatment in Europe, where people are "more developed regarding human sexuality."
The animal-abuse charges stem from Raoul mishandling the foster home's pet Chihuahua because Raoul was used to bigger dogs. "The woman freaked," Todd says. He says he's never heard of the abuse of the rabbits.
Raoul's fire-setting involved lighting fires in a pit "with permission" in the backyard, Todd says. He says he asked Andreas about the alleged fire in Switzerland and that Andreas told him "that was ridiculous."
Finally, the Denver Post was guilty of "poor reporting," Todd says, when it ran a story about the Wuthriches running a video-production company out of their home. He says Post reporters never called him or the Wuthriches for a comment. If they had, he would have been able to show them a memo from the DA's office that detailed what had been found in the Wuthrich home during the September 9 search, "and there was no evidence of a video-production company." The couple was "ambushed" regarding the Web site, and the Swiss television station misinterpreted Beverly's remarks that the site had been in operation.
Todd says the entire case was built on "the big lie" -- or lies. One is that children don't lie about these things, when the latest studies show that 40 percent of the time they do, he says. Another lie was that if there was "oral-genital contact," it was something that children had to have learned from adults, "when in reality, they see the neighborhood cats and dogs doing it all the time."
What made this case different, Todd says, is that the Wuthriches "were willing to resist and say the system is crazy."
There will be no trial, so evidence regarding the parents' character and actions will never be heard. In November, at a hearing in which he excluded the press but allowed the Swiss ambassador's representative to remain, Judge Zimmerman agreed with the defense that Raoul had been denied his right to a speedy trial. Up to that ruling, the district attorney's office believed that the sixty-day clock guaranteeing a juvenile defendant's right to a speedy trial was ticking only when the juvenile was in a detention facility, not foster homes, but the defense had argued that it began when he was removed from his parents' care. The magistrate in this case had agreed with the prosecution when the defense first brought the issue to her attention. But Zimmerman, while noting that the law on such matters is "obscure" and confusing, said he agreed with the defense attorneys. Raoul was set free.
The implications of the judge's ruling on district attorney's offices across the state, most of whom hold a similar view on what qualifies as detention in terms of the sixty-day time period, are still being sorted out. Russell says other offices have expressed concern that Judge Zimmerman's ruling may affect current and future instances in which children are placed in foster homes rather than detention facilities while discussions about whether to file criminal charges are ongoing. The ruling could set a precedent that forces prosecutors and social workers to move quickly toward a trial instead of resolving the case in some other fashion.
But after announcing that Raoul must be freed, Judge Zimmerman was not quite ready to let it go. He'd sided with Raoul's attorneys on a legal technicality, but as Raoul doodled on a notepad and ate lunch, the judge laid into the press, the Swiss and Raoul's parents.
"This case has been so misconstrued and so misrepresented and apparently so misunderstood, that this court...received correspondence from primarily residents and I presume citizens of the Country of Switzerland that so denigrate and put this court in disrespect that it's to the point of being unconscionable," he says. "And I assume those remarks have all been prompted by the way the European media has misreported, inaccurately reported, and untruthfully reported what's going on in this case and how the juvenile justice system of this state works. I've been doing this work for 25 years. I've never been called the types of things that I've been called."
He noted that the accusation was "not one of fondling," not "one of involvement with another individual concerning urination in public," but "one of cunnilingus," and that if a trial had established Raoul's history of fire-setting and abusing animals, then "this is a child in very serious need of appropriate treatment." And, he said, regardless of "Swiss standards or Swiss morality or Swiss ideas," Raoul's case was "an issue of conduct that is of concern to the government...of this state where the laws of this state are applicable."
Zimmerman had also been irritated by "the apparent carte blanche acceptance of what the parents have to say." The parents had a duty to attend every proceeding held in the case, he said, and "if they fail to do so, they can be found in contempt of court and sanctioned for that....Whatever their motives may have been, they cut and ran to Europe, leaving the child alone here while in detention, and removed from the child any parental support that he may have during the course of the case." Then they "had the gall to misrepresent to the media the underlying facts of this case and to misrepresent why they left this country."
In taking up "the mantra for these parents" and not properly reporting the facts of the case, Zimmerman said, the media, particularly the European media, had attempted to "vilify and demean the juvenile justice system of this state."
For that, Raoul's attorney Vincent Todd says the authorities have only themselves to blame. On November 30, Todd filed a notice to sue Jefferson County and the state on behalf of the Wuthriches. He won't reveal how much he'll ask for in damages. Sargent says Todd is asking in the "hundreds of thousands," claiming such things as illegal search, illegal arrest and defamation. By the way, Todd says, Blick released some of the money it raised to pay the Wuthriches' legal bills, and the rest for Raoul's therapy.
Laura Mehmert is only just recovering from the onslaught of the media. However, she says, she'd do it again. "I think about that little girl and how frightened she will feel with him back in the home," she says. "The press were all, 'That poor little boy.' What about her? And I'm worried that someone will see what happened to me and decide not to report something like this. You have to."
She describes most of the mail and telephone calls -- at least until she changed her number -- as "hateful." But there were some that vindicated her actions. "They were mostly from women who had been the victims of incest," she says, "saying things like, 'I wish a neighbor had been there to save me.'" A few days after the judge's decision, Mehmert says she was on Peter Boyles's radio talk show when a woman called who said she'd had a child in Beverly's daycare center. "She went over to pick up her child, a two-year-old, and the little girl didn't have any panties on," Mehmert says. "She asked where they were, and she was told that the little girl had cut them up with scissors. She was given the panties, and they had been cut into strips...Now you show me a two-year-old with the manual dexterity to handle a pair of scissors like that. Needless to say, she didn't take her child back."
By the time Mehmert appeared on the radio show, Raoul had already left the country and arrived in Switzerland. Beverly Wuthrich told reporters that the entire family, including his little sister, was looking forward to the reunion. The girl was seeing a counselor, she said, and when Raoul gets home, she intended to see that he got therapy, too. Not for the alleged sexual abuse, or fire-setting, or animal abuse, but for the trauma of his incarceration. Of Raoul's little sister, Beverly told the press, "She carries a picture of him with her. His absence has caused her some problems."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.